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Attacking Alcoholism and Addiction: Waggoner Center unites researchers seeking causes and cures

Frequently Asked Questions on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

What is alcoholism?

Alcoholism, also known as alcohol dependence, is a disease that includes the following four symptoms:

  • Craving—A strong need, or urge, to drink.
  • Loss of control—Not being able to stop drinking once drinking has begun.
  • Physical dependence—Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness and anxiety after stopping drinking.
  • Tolerance—The need to drink greater amounts of alcohol to get “high.”

Is alcoholism a disease?

Yes. The craving that an alcoholic feels for alcohol can be as strong as the need for food or water. An alcoholic will continue to drink despite serious family, health or legal problems.

Like many other diseases, alcoholism is chronic, meaning that it lasts a person’s lifetime; it usually follows a predictable course; and it has symptoms. The risk for developing alcoholism is influenced both by a person’s genes and by his or her lifestyle.

Is alcoholism inherited?

Research shows that the risk for developing alcoholism does run in families. The genes a person inherits partially explain this pattern, but lifestyle is also a factor. Your friends, the amount of stress in your life and how readily available alcohol is also are factors that may increase your risk for alcoholism.

But remember: Risk is not destiny. Just because alcoholism tends to run in families doesn’t mean that a child of an alcoholic parent will become an alcoholic, too. Some people develop alcoholism even though no one in their family has a drinking problem. By the same token, not all children of alcoholic families get into trouble with alcohol.

Can alcoholism be cured?

No, not at this time. Even if an alcoholic hasn’t been drinking for a long time, he or she can still suffer a relapse.

Can alcoholism be treated?

Yes. Alcoholism treatment programs use both counseling and medications to help a person stop drinking. Most alcoholics need help to recover from their disease. With support and treatment, many people are able to stop drinking and rebuild their lives.

Do you have to be an alcoholic to experience problems?

No. Alcoholism is only one type of an alcohol problem. Alcohol abuse can be just as harmful. A person can abuse alcohol without actually being an alcoholic—that is, he or she may drink too much and too often but still not be dependent on alcohol. Some of the problems linked to alcohol abuse include not being able to meet work, school or family responsibilities; drunk-driving arrests and car crashes; and drinking-related medical conditions. Under some circumstances, even social or moderate drinking is dangerous—for example, when driving, during pregnancy or when taking certain medications.

Are specific groups of people more likely to have problems?

Alcohol abuse and alcoholism cut across gender, race and nationality. Nearly 14 million people in the United States—1 in every 13 adults—abuse alcohol or are alcoholic. In general, though, more men than women are alcohol dependent or have alcohol problems. And alcohol problems are highest among young adults ages 18-29 and lowest among adults ages 65 and older. We also know that people who start drinking at an early age—for example, at age 14 or younger—greatly increase the chance that they will develop alcohol problems at some point in their lives.

How can you tell if someone has a problem?

Answering the following four questions can help you find out if you or a loved one has a drinking problem:

  • Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
  • Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  • Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
  • Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?

One “yes” answer suggests a possible alcohol problem. More than one “yes” answer means it is highly likely that a problem exists. If you think that you or someone you know might have an alcohol problem, it is important to see a doctor or other health care provider right away. They can help you determine if a drinking problem exists and plan the best course of action.

Does alcohol affect women differently?

Yes. Women become more impaired than men do after drinking the same amount of alcohol, even when differences in body weight are taken into account. This is because women’s bodies have less water than men’s bodies. Because alcohol mixes with body water, a given amount of alcohol becomes more highly concentrated in a woman’s body than in a man’s. In other words, it would be like dropping the same amount of alcohol into a much smaller pail of water. That is why the recommended drinking limit for women is lower than for men.

In addition, chronic alcohol abuse takes a heavier physical toll on women than on men. Alcohol dependence and related medical problems, such as brain, heart, and liver damage, progress more rapidly in women than in men.

Does alcohol affect older people differently?

Alcohol’s effects do vary with age. Slower reaction times, problems with hearing and seeing, and a lower tolerance to alcohol’s effects put older people at higher risk for falls, car crashes and other types of injuries that may result from drinking.

Older people also tend to take more medicines than younger people. Mixing alcohol with over-the-counter or prescription medications can be very dangerous, even fatal. More than 150 medications interact harmfully with alcohol. In addition, alcohol can make many of the medical conditions common in older people, including high blood pressure and ulcers, more serious. Physical changes associated with aging can make older people feel “high” even after drinking only small amounts of alcohol.

How can a person get help for an alcohol problem?

There are many national and local resources that can help. The National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service provides a toll-free telephone number, 1-800-662-HELP, offering various resource information. Through this service you can speak directly to a representative concerning substance abuse treatment, request printed material on alcohol or other drugs or obtain local substance abuse treatment referral information in your state.

Many people also find support groups a helpful aid to recovery:

Alcoholics Anonymous
National Association for Children of Alcoholics
National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information


—Excerpted from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Web site


Alcohol's Trail of Devastation

According to the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research Web site, the following is true:

  • Loss of life due to alcoholism and alcohol abuse is greater than that caused by cancer, AIDS, or heart disease.
  • The disease is caused by both environmental and genetic factors and affects every new generation of children where one or more parents or grandparents are alcoholic.
  • The economic impact of alcoholism is staggering. Lost productivity, the burden on the health care system, and other factors are estimated to cost $148 billion annually, and the emotional stress on family members and friends of the afflicted is incalculable.
  • Alcohol and other drug use has been implicated as factors in this country’s most serious and expensive problems, including family violence and HIV/AIDS.
  • Federal support for research on alcoholism is the lowest for any major public health problem. Why so little federal funding for alcoholism? “All of us working in the field always ask ourselves that question,” says Dr. R. Adron Harris. “Mr. Waggoner always likes to say that the NIH institute that supports alcohol research has just a little more funding than the institute that supports dental research. That’s not an exaggeration. And he doesn’t know how many people are in jail because of bad teeth.”
  • Research in this field has a potential impact on the lives of about 14 million alcoholics, alcohol abusers, and their family members—an estimated 98 million Americans.
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  Updated 2014 October 13
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